Who Elected Donald Trump?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The question of who elected Donald Trump may seem redundant, irrelevant even, this close to a new election. However, four years after the 2016 election, different constituencies offer wholly unrelated answers. What is inexplicable in one explanation fits into the trajectory of an historical epoch in another. The Wall Street – DC establishment sees the question in terms of the comparative incomes of the people who voted. However, this view casts aside the exodus of core constituencies from the duopoly political parties and electoral politics. The thesis here is that capitalist capture of the levers of governance, a.k.a. neoliberalism, brought this about.

The question of elections is typically answered through demographic analyses of the people who voted. This view assumes that not voting by people who are eligible is either immaterial, or that the implied politics is irrelevant or indeterminate. Additionally, given the income and wealth skew amongst those who vote, the contention that the rich elected this candidate or that implies inclusive representation of the polity that simply isn’t the case. These are more than abstractions. As is illustrated below, voters who didn’t vote in 2016, or who switched from one party to another in ways that are inexplicable within the official view, had a large impact on the outcome.

The upset victory of Donald Trump in 2016 produced a torrent of head scratching, finger-pointing and outrage by pundits, the politically oriented commentariat, and the vast food chain of professional politicians, consultants and advisors whose livelihoods depend on selling plausible explanations of unexpected outcomes to political donors. Right up to election eve, 2016, the overwhelming consensus was that Donald Trump would lose and that capitalist democracy would proceed apace with corporate bailouts, gratuitous wars, and trade agreements that benefit corporate executives and the already rich.

Graph: the tendency to vote rises with income. A larger percentage of rich than not-rich people vote. This is, in fact, how the U.S. was established— the propertied alone had the right to vote. However, the rich are a tiny minority in absolute numbers. This explains why voter suppression is so endemic to the royalist / Tory residual that tends to find neoliberalism compelling. And it is what makes concentrated economic power antithetical to democracy. One dollar, one vote produces very different outcomes than one person, one vote. Source: econofact.org.

The predominant storyline in the press going into the election was that Donald Trump’s appeal was to a dispossessed ‘white working class’ which was receptive to xenophobic scapegoating, of which Mr. Trump provided particularly crude examples. Interviews were featured with former workers in the industrial economies of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, who shared tales of lives lived ‘playing by the rules’ laid out by liberal politicians, but who nevertheless were cast aside when trade agreements like NAFTA sent their livelihoods overseas in pursuit of low-wage labor. The result: widespread disenfranchisement, executive bonuses and stock market gains.

Left unsaid going into the 2016 election was that voters had been abandoning the establishment political parties since George W. Bush’s war with Iraq headed south around 2005. First it was Republicans who bailed on the Republican Party. Then, following the implementation of Barack Obama’s political program, came the Democrats. Party affiliation held steady going into the 2008 election, after which it declined precipitously as Mr. Obama implemented his neoliberal political program. In contrast to the racial ‘backlash’ theory, those leaving the Democratic Party became Independents. They could have joined the Republican Party had doing so been their inclination, but they didn’t.

Graph: voters fled the Democratic party during Barack Obama’s first term to become Independents. This was after they elected him, meaning that they had no problem voting for a black man. They could have joined the Republican Party if they objected to either Mr. Obama’s race or his ‘socialist’ agenda, as it was described by Republicans. But they didn’t. It is therefore plausible that they objected to his policies. They voted for him, he betrayed their interests, so they left the Democratic Party in response. Source: gallup.com.

With respect to those who voted in 2016— Donald Trump’s constituency was richer, in terms of both average and median income, than were Hillary Clinton’s voters. This point was used by the establishment press to ditch the ‘white working class’ meme and shift focus to the explanations being offered by political marketers for the Democrats. As far as it goes, the comparative incomes explanation fits the facts provided. And it is much truer than the explanations that establishment Democrats invented to explain their loss. But in terms of descriptive political reporting, it excludes more than it illuminates. In fact, core constituencies for the Democrats either stayed home (blacks) or voted for Donald Trump after twice voting for Barack Obama. Treating these constituencies like they either don’t exist or don’t matter is, in fact, The Problem.

The establishment Democrat’s explanation for Mr. Trump’s victory, conceived by campaign consultants to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, was 1) racist backlash against Barack Obama’s tenure as the first Black President of the U.S., 2) endorsement of Donald Trump’s racist and xenophobic statements by white nationalist and anti-immigrant groups looking for a leader to lead their movement, and 3) a campaign to sow social divisions in the U.S. led by Russia, in particular by Vladimir Putin. The only reference made to the consequences of four decades of planned deindustrialization was ‘economic anxiety’ as a psychological malady unrelated to economic dispossession.

Graph: None of the official explanations of the 2016 election seem to have captured the dynamic at work. White voters didn’t rush to vote for Donald Trump— only a bit over 1% more whites voted in 2016 than in 2012. The story is that black and Hispanic voters stayed away in droves. Voting by blacks fell seven percent from 2012 to 2016. The cheap explanation, that blacks stayed home because ‘one of their own’ wasn’t running, is belied by the steady increase in black voter participation in prior elections. Wholesale disenchantment with the Democrat’s policies and / or candidates fits voter actions. Source: census.gov.

In fact, as the graphs from the Census Bureau above illustrate, there was no influx of white voters anxious to support Mr. Trump and his racialized nationalism. The percentage of white voters who voted in 2016 rose only 1.2% from 2012, and was down by a like amount from 2008. However, after rising steadily from 1996 through 2012, it was black and Hispanic voters who stayed away from the polls in droves. Assuming that the Census Bureau data is correct, the percentage of blacks who voted in 2016 fell by 7% from 2012. The identitarian explanation, that blacks voted for ‘one of their own’ with Mr. Obama and then stayed home when his name wasn’t on the ballot, is insightful-lite in that black voters went to the polls to vote for white candidates in prior elections. Whether or not the contention is racist, I leave to readers.

A paradox lies at the heart of the conceit that not voting is an implicit endorsement, or more minimally, a facilitation of the election of, this candidate or that. Do those who chide eligible voters for not choosing between politically retrograde candidates really care to go there and blame Blacks and Hispanics for the election of Donald Trump? The arithmetic is more complicated, with proportional representation calculations needed to adjust the actual impact in order to assign precise responsibility. But as a general proposition, does boycotting an election really imply that those who did the boycotting are responsible for the outcome?

From a political marketing perspective, once it was known that people of color partially boycotted the 2016 election, the obvious marketing strategy became to create racial appeals that boosted the Democrat’s ‘brand’ (forgive me) and diminished their competitor’s. In fact, leading Democratic strategists who had spent storied careers crafting cynical dog whistle campaigns, began shouting racist! to shut down any challenge to their campaign. Donald Trump helped their cause with his insipid slanders of mostly powerless people. But the disenchantment expressed by black voters in 2016 illustrates the power of people to make up their own minds regarding political issues.

Graph: between 2012 and 2016, voter disenchantment with the electoral choice by registered voters who didn’t vote rose by 11 percentage points, to 25%. As stated below, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were the two least liked presidential candidates in polling history. To those who might imagine that the Democrats learned something from that fiasco, in 2020 Joe Biden is, according to recent polls, nearly as disliked as Hillary Clinton was in 2016. Astonishingly, given his pandemic response and fealty to his oligarch brethren, or possibly because of this, Donald Trump is less disliked than he was in 2016. Source: pewresearch.org.

The NAFTA / working class / deindustrialization thesis of political realignment is limited in scope. But it is useful shorthand for the impact that neoliberal economic policies have had since the 1970s. NAFTA went into effect in 1994. The real exodus of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. began after China joined the WTO (World Trade Organization) in 2001. However, working class wages began stagnating in the 1970s, aligned with the neoliberal coup that was underway. Fed Chair Paul Volcker engineered what at the time was the worst recession since the Great Depression with the express purpose of crushing the power of labor. Mr. Volcker was appointed by Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Additionally, the ‘white’ in white working class is politically and culturally loaded. While the overall population of the American working-class skews white in absolute numbers, a larger percentage of blacks are working class and poor. Industrialization facilitated the Great Migration of Southern Blacks from the rural South to the industrialized North. What the use of the term (‘white’) appears to reference is the social breakdown in Rust Belt communities subjected to the twin curses of deindustrialization and neoliberal creep into every aspect of modern life. Why this was considered a ‘white’ problem is a bit of a mystery unless tragedies aren’t considered tragedies by the national press until they affect whites.

According to the polling organization Gallup, by election eve 2016, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were the two most reviled candidates for President in polling history. Both of the establishment political parties experienced plummeting memberships during periods of profound policy failures. There are plausible reasons why treating the 2016 election in terms of comparative incomes is less than illuminating. In terms of class analysis, blacks, who skew towards working class, and whites— many of whom had twice voted for Barack Obama, but nevertheless voted for Donald Trump in 2016, suggests that class antagonism was central to the outcome of the 2016 election.

As reported in the book Shattered, by election eve 2016, Clinton campaign officials had decided on the ‘Russia stole the election’ storyline. Additionally, Democratic strategists were most certainly aware that blacks stayed home en masse in 2016. This made Donald Trump, with his nativist chatter and typical Republican deference to repressive authority, the perfect foil to retroactively portray the election as about race and foreign intrigue. When the Democratic-leaning press began (falsely) reporting on rising hate and racial backlash, and the CEOs of large banks and tech companies began stating publicly that white supremacy is the only problem in need of solving, the havoc that neoliberal policies have wrought quickly disappeared as a topic of polite conversation.

Writer Matt Taibbi and the makers of the documentary film, The Social Dilemma, have both argued that traditional and social media have turned stoking social divisions into a business plan. From a Marxist perspective, class antagonisms are the product of economic relations. The powers that be spent five decades cutting social spending, privatizing, outsourcing and putting more people in prison than any other nation on the planet. The privatized and the privatizers, the outsourced and the outsourcers, and the imprisoned and the imprisoners, might agree or disagree on political issues. But it is ultimately power attached to social facts that affect social relations.

If one begins by considering the universe of potentially eligible voters— people who meet the broad criteria, but who are excluded based on particulars like prior felony convictions, voters who don’t vote exist in a political context, regardless of whether they have political views. Voter suppression is a political tactic. Additionally, unless one is willing to posit that the 7% of black voters who voted in 2012, but who sat the 2016 election out, were too lazy or disinterested in politics to vote, then not voting is every bit as much an assertion of political will as voting.

The establishment commenters who framed the 2016 election in terms of comparative incomes— Clinton voters versus Trump voters, made a narrow argument to the detriment of broader political understanding. If all that matters are the demographic profiles of those who voted, then certainly the material refusal of Black and Hispanic voters to participate in the 2016 election was, and is, without political importance or consequence. And assertions that the large number of voters who voted for Barack Obama twice, but who then voted for Donald Trump in 2016, did so because they are racists, defies basic political logic.

Vox tried to frame the down ballot exiling of Democrats during the Obama years— with the loss of over a thousand congressional seats and state and local elected positions, as the natural ebb and flow of American politics. This was the pitch that Nancy Pelosi offered in 2016, the ‘fashion’ view of politics, that voters like to change which party governs every few years. To buy it, one must ignore the history of Democrats and Republicans working together to create institutional impediments that make third-party challenges well nigh impossible. Facilitating the will of the people does not correlate with excluding viable candidates because they lack party affiliation.

Through passage and implementation of the New Deal, FDR secured the loyalty of the polity for Democrats, if not his own oligarch class, from the 1930s through the neoliberal revolution in the 1970s. And this wasn’t just a matter of winning elections, which his party didn’t always do. Through suppressing the power of capital, a social democratic weltanschauung (worldview) grew deep roots within the political class. This isn’t to overstate the case— there are serious and valid criticisms of official policies during this era. But as for politics as fashion, the party of FDR held substantive control of domestic political economy for a half century.

To the issue at hand, the question of who elected Donald Trump in 2016, the comparative incomes approach is reactionary in the sense that it affirms the establishment view that low relative and / or absolute voter participation is due to personal and cultural factors rather than political disaffection. Circumstantial evidence, such as the steep drop in voter affiliation with the establishment parties, the correlation of this drop with identifiable policy failures, vibrant and enthusiastic political participation outside of official channels, and the widespread and historic loathing of the duopoly Party scions put forward for elected office, suggests that there is more to the story. With their livelihoods and power tied to perpetuating the existing system, it is folly to wait for the political leadership to understand this. They never will.


Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.